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Panels of the tile mural in Central Avenue Jazz Park. Photos by Josh Woo

Central Avenue was once the place to be for jazz music. But where has the music gone now?

By Josh Woo

Jazz drummer Art Blakey once said, "Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." If this holds true, then one Los Angeles community has been covered in it since the jazz scene there died out.

View South Central LA Jazz Scene in a larger map
Notable locations in the history of jazz in the South Central area.

Nestled in the intersection of Central Avenue and 42nd Street is Central Avenue Jazz Park, a small reminder of what was once a flourishing jazz community in the 1940s and '50s. The park itself, just across the street from the Dunbar Hotel, takes up just half a block of curb space, with one lonely play structure overlooking an area that appears to be a stage.

On the back fence behind this stage is a tile mural, depicting jazz greats such as Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. The mural was constructed in 2005 by the HeArt Project, an arts education organization that works with teens in alternative high schools to combat the high school dropout crisis. Cynthia Brophy, the executive director of the project, says that it started after having a conversation with the Dunbar regarding a partnership.

"The executive director [of the Dunbar] at the time showed us the park, which was just a blank wall—it may have been tagged up," she says. "So we said, 'Let's do a project, where students can learn the history of jazz on Central Avenue, and create an art piece that's permanent.'"

The mural also features parts of the score to Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" in the background. Brophy says the visiting artist that helped the students create the mural was Strayhorn's niece, Robin Strayhorn.

"The students worked with Robin to portray the history of jazz on Central Avenue," Brophy says. "It was a great project, and it came together at one time—having Robin and that family history link."

Across the street stands the famed Dunbar Hotel, where many black entertainers, athletes and writers stayed in the 1920s. Vestiges of its history remain with the original sign from the 1930s, as well as its former name, "Hotel Sommerville," embedded into the floor by the front door. What remains today, however, is a low-income apartment complex that opened in 1989.

"While any glimmer of Central Avenue's glory days of 75 years ago are long gone, standing inside the hotel itself, it's hard not to get the smallest sense of what it was like when the Dunbar was the center of life for so many people," writes blogger Floyd B. Bariscale.

Brophy says it's possible for those days to come back, owing the loss of the jazz culture in Central Avenue to artistic movement.

"You need synergy to create a movement," she says. "We hope to connect young people to arts education so they have that possibility to spark that movement. But if we don't do that, it won't happen."

PART TWO: Leimert Park